The Scientific Meridian

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Kurt Vonnegut

I have to be honest, Rachit, I wrote the original post in April. I showed it to someone, and they said: ‘sounds like an extended Twitter rant’. So I tucked it away in the back of my mind, hoping that whatever it was that I was feeling would eventually fade as it was exposed to the light of reason and the indirect scrutiny of more nuanced takes. But the intuition didn’t fade. It only grew stronger. So, I posted my extended Twitter rant, for better or for worse.

I will attempt to answer your W’s in a second. But first, let me paint with an extremely broad brush and say the following: my intuition is that the lionization of Scientists and Science develops in the fertile ground left behind by the secularization of society. Humankind needs something to believe in, something to answer the question ‘why?’, and maybe most importantly something to paint the world into the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Why? As the ‘judge’ says in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian:

It makes no difference what men think of war… War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

And so we fight, because it is our nature. We wage ‘battles’, we have ‘front-line heroes’, and we have the innocent casualties. And just like in wars, we look to the generals for directions. The scientific experts are, for some, the generals on the ‘good’ side. The idolatry I am pointing to is the cultural force that disproportionately heeds the advice of the generals, without due deliberation by the broader public. It is the force that makes people say things like ‘I am with science,’ ‘defend science’ or ‘listen to the experts.’ If this was a truism, then it would not be worth saying. I think it points to a much deeper feeling of unquestioned idolization of ‘science’ that is not warranted. How do I know it is unwarranted? Well I am, in theory, a ‘practicing scientist’ of sorts; I have seen how the sausage is made and I feel a duty to call these things out.

Now to your questions:

Who is idolizing the ‘experts’?
Some specific examples:

  • California Governor Gavin Newsom: “The West Coast is—and will continue to be—guided by SCIENCE.” (Of course you are, what does this even mean if not some sort of idolization or pandering?)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden: “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.” (Self explanatory)
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the crisis “a giant experiment in whether the world will listen to scientists, now and going forward.” (Paints the scientists as the ones with the answers)
  • Greta Thunberg: ‘We take it for granted, that we listen to the current, best available, UNITED science’ (To say science is united is to miss the point of science)

Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? You say.. ‘of course’.
According to a Pew research poll, 44% of the U.S. public disagrees with you.

A majority of U.S. adults (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues; 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.

Where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences?
The broad consequences is that democracy devolves into oligarchy — the ruling of the few over the many. The 20th century is rife with examples where the idolization of ‘science’ has gone wrong. Eugenics, atom bombs, Chernobyl. The list is long.
If unchecked, this idolization bleeds into academia itself where “recognizable scientists receive disproportionate credit, and therefore trust, in a repeating cycle” in something called the ‘Matthew Effect’. You say that peer review can help rid science. That may be true in an ideal world, but it is not true when certain facts or persons are beyond question and can cause a reviewer their career. There are large parts of science that do not follow a double-blind process and a reviewer’s identity is almost always visible to the editors.

I admit that much of my qualms may be made worse by certain types of media coverage. For example, take this article on the wildfires in California that has the headline ‘Trump Again Rejects Science’. What Trump said was that he thinks  ‘science doesn’t know’ what caused the latest fires. This is of course obviously true: there are a number of factors , including climate change. But instead of going for a nuanced rebuttal, the NYT goes for war. Trump vs. Science: round one million and two.

Finally, I raised the notion of aesthetic beauty to make a point about ‘evidence’. Science is not always about observation — there are many things in science that are chosen arbitrarily: out of fashion, politics, and aesthetics. Something that passes peer review has been reviewed by peers that may have the same fashions, the same politics, and the same sense of aesthetics.

In this lovely article called ‘Why trust science?’, Naomi Oreskes (a professor in the history of science at Harvard, but who’s checking — lets not idolize experts here) says that the fundamental reason to trust science is not the ‘scientific method’ (which is rarely how actual ‘science’ is done), but that there is a culture of sustained scrutiny in a form of ‘transformative interrogation’.

Interrogation can be transformative, this blog being a case-in-point. But interrogation is a process that transcends and ultimately supersedes ‘science’. The  interrogation of established dogma in the protestant reformation perhaps gave rise to modern science. Thus, we should be happy to see people questioning established facts (no matter how ‘obvious’ they may seem), and refusing to take the ‘experts’ opinion as gospel.  When done in good faith, this scrutiny is not ‘anti science’, it is the very essence of science.

Who? When? Why? Where? What?

I have a lot of questions. Lets begin.

Who is idolizing the ‘experts’? I’m not sure who you’re speaking against. In the ‘trade-offs’ of policy making and a lack of a perfect explanation, someone has to decide things, and it makes sense that someone who is trained and researched should make those imperfect decisions. Are they always right? No. Are people expecting perfection? No. If they are, that’s silly, and we can agree on that. Explorable explanations is what science and scientists deal with and if there is a disconnect with the general populace as a whole about that, or any individual scientists then for sure, I think people should be re-educated in the purposes of science.

Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? Of course. That’s what political governance allows for. Questions, and demands. Are scientists biased? Of course. That’s why peer review exists. Is it a fast process? No. It takes time and it happens with the collective minds and scrutiny of an entire field, young minds, and Laymans’ outside the field asking questions. I don’t know of any “idolatry” culture, I’m not sure what you’re pointing to.

In order to properly delve into this, and for me to understand what you’re speaking to, specific examples would help. Are you talking about global responses to coronavirus? Popular science? Psychology studies? Robotics research? Which group of people? Educated people in the west? Canadians? The group of scientists themselves? And in these cases, when they’ve done the idolizing, where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences? What are we missing out on?

Separately, I think there’s a whole other conversation that you raised about “beautiful systems” and their validity to explore and explain the underpinnings of Truth, whatever that may be. That’s more in “hypothesis” formation I would say than a conversation about idolatry of scientists. It is also more speaking about the value of philosophy in science education, which is an interesting conversation, and something that I think is intensely valuable, but again, who when where why what are you talking about?

The Cult of Experts

Rachit,

We are all in some bubble of information these days. In my bubble, one understandable but troubling trend has manifested itself: an incessant insistence by the popular press that only ‘experts’ (i.e., academically-trained researchers) have any right to speak on issues that concern things of import (health, prosperity, etc.).

It is a truism to say that people who have dedicated significant time to studying a particular phenomena should be given ample time and influence when the public-at-large must decide how to respond to that phenomena. If I have an issue with my plumbing, I call a plumber. But this doesn’t mean that an arbitrary plumber that picks up the phone may know all that there is to know about plumbing, that a plumber is immune to other influences which may affect his or her advice, or that I should I fix my plumbing without considering other effects that the plumber may be agnostic to (e.g., should I drain my child’s education savings account to fix a plumbing issue?).

Much of the same issues that affect plumbing affect science, but sometimes more acutely. First, who decides who has the credentials to work as a scientist? Largely, other scientists. A plumber is judged by their technical prowess, by their creativity, and by the longevity of their work. The ultimate arbiter are the facts-of-the-matter: was the leak stopped? how expensive was the work? A scientist is no different except in one important aspect: the ultimate arbiters of science are, in the short term, other scientists.

To avoid becoming a self-justifying cult of truth, the modern academic system rests on the ability of ‘experts’ to avoid, as much as possible, allegiances to a particular truth. Instead, the system is built on the meta-truth of an honest pursuit of Truth. Through this ethic, science remains open to new ideas, and rids itself of theories that calcify into unquestionable gospel without an overwhelming amount of evidence. Even then, we can speak of theories that have predictive power, but little aesthetic appeal. We should be suspicious of scientists who (1) present any particular model as beyond questioning, and (2) apply science as an all-encompassing explanatory system. The question of whether or not all phenomena can be studied through scientific means is itself not scientific.

Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. means that one has demonstrated the skills to present and investigate some theory and communicate one’s conclusions in a cogent manner. However, the overwhelming majority of ‘theories’ are not made ex-nihilo, but are the product of a scientific milieu which has fashions, dogma, and political undercurrents (wherever there are gatekeepers, there is politics).

Second, science, in so far as it relies on this hypothetico-deductive model, is not designed to provide positive answers. It is designed to reject false theories. Out of the theories which are clearly not ‘false’, which one best reflects reality? That question is generally not in the purview of science. For example, there are alternative theories to general relativity that explain relativistic gravity. However, general relativity is considered to be the most appealing because it is the simplest. This appeal to Occam’s razor is an aesthetic judgement; but why should it be true? It itself cannot be rejected by science. Further still, there are almost certainly theories or parts of theories which may be true but are simply unfashionable to even reject. They are below consideration, but may not be below ‘truth’.

In light of this, it is particularly troubling to see the scientist idolized as a kind of philosopher-king. I love science, I love academia, but I do not love idolatry. To the extent possible, academics are trained to be free from political inclinations, to not be affected by trends and fashions, and to seek ‘truth’ for the benefit of all humankind. But they are trained in a very specific sense, almost always specializing in a narrow slice of ‘truth’, and with conflicting and pernicious mantra (publish or perish!).

The history of science, philosophy, and medicine is rife with examples where ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-experts’ fought, often in vain, for heterodox opinions that were rejected by the ‘scientific consensus’ at the time but which we now take for granted. Not everyone with a heterodox opinion is Copernicus, but neither must they be an ignorant crackpot who wishes to poison the populace.

The reality, for scientists and for all people, is that we are all trying our best to interpret the phenomena we see before us. Given sufficient patience and diligence, science can help us contextualize phenomena and reject theories that do not explain new evidence. But science is not, and will never be, free of politics, dogma and fashionable ways to conceive of the world. Even if this was the case, we must not fool ourselves into believing that a concrete understanding of the world will make our decisions as simple as consulting the experts on the matter.

As David Hume wrote, we cannot get an ought from an is. Ultimately, what society ought to do is the choice of the society itself, of which the ‘experts’ on any particular issue are but one part.

Yours in pulp,
Valentin

NFC Podcast #16 – The Corona Persona

We’re back! A special episode of NFC during the worldwide COVID-19 quarantine where we discuss the film Persona (1966) written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Show notes
=================

Louis CK (Starting Shows)

Norm MacDonald Jokes (Best of)

An Epidemic of False Confidence Related to COVID-19

In Praise of Phone Calls (New Yorker)

Persona (1966) – Free YouTube Edition

Heroes and Villains: The Wes Mantooth Philosophy

In the wake of an embarrassing game 3 playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry was asked about what it is that makes the Cavaliers a great team. He replied, “they’ve got LeBron James and no one can close the gap on him.”

Now, LeBron is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But Kyle is trying to beat LeBron, and many people who heard these words (including yours truly) interpreted them as a sign that Kyle, and many of the Raptors, were mentally checked out. Defeated before the series is even over. After all, if “no one can close the gap on [LeBron]”, what’s the point of even playing?

This got me thinking. What is a good way of approaching your role models, those people that you admire, the ones you dare call your ‘heroes’? How do you maintain a healthy respect for their skills, without deifying them into an unreachable realm that makes you prone to excusing your own deficiencies?

I often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes,’ used in common parlance. Presumably this is meant to prevent the disappointing realization that one’s heroes are just people, with real emotions, real flaws and potentially very little to say to a star-struck fan. But why is this bad? Shouldn’t this realization be a beacon of hope that we too, someday, can accomplish the same things we admire in our role models, while still grappling with our own messy humanity? Shouldn’t Kyle look at LeBron on the court and say, he’s just another guy shooting hoops, drinking water, missing free throws. He’s not a God, he’s just a genetically gifted athlete with a Versa-climber.

Maybe not. Maybe really what we’re scared of is this very realization. The fact that our heroes are not Gods, and yet they still do what they do. How can you be that athletic, at that height, for so long?

Plato’s realm of ideal forms comes to mind. There are no perfect spheres in this world, but all spheres are an imperfect realization of the ideal Sphere. Is it better to keep imagining the ideal basketball player, or meet an imperfect (but damn close) manifestation of that ideal? What motivates you to improve? Despite Plato’s ideal realm, much of Greek mythology has distinctly anthropomorphic Gods, with human flaws. Presumably, the Greeks felt this made the Gods more relatable, and made their myths more effective. Yet, many modern Gods are undoubtedly much more abstract, and unhuman. (A clear exception to this is many sects of Christianity which accept the holy trinity, a resolution that combines aspects of both the ideal, and the human aspects of God).

Setting aside heroes, what about our enemies, our ‘villains’? Should we humanize them (exposing our common humanity, and holding hands to sing Kumbaya), but keep our heroes sterile, unsullied by the humbling reality of being a real, shitting, sneezing, tax-paying human being?

I think this unification is in many ways futile. It makes it harder for us to fight for any cause and traps us in a pit of nuance and indecision. It is much easier to hate the Bogeyman than it is to fight a man on the toilet (shout out to Tyrion for still getting it done).

Perhaps a reasonable approach is a good, healthy amount of respectful hatred for both our heroes and our villains. Perhaps what I really wanted Kyle to do was quote Wes Mantooth from Anchorman: “from deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, [LeBron] do I respect you!”

What say you, Rachit?

NFC Podcast #15 – Philanthropy, Deontology, and Effective Altruism: Mo money, mo problems?

The 15th NeverFromConcentrate podcast about philanthropy, charity and how best to express one’s ‘love for mankind’. We talk about Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Yuval Noah Harari.

Arbitrary Conviction

Karma optimization has a built in crassness to it’s connotation. It feels a bit gross to maximize, optimize, perfect the goal-centred, utilitarian approach that Dev and the Church of the Karma Bureau demand from us. It feels robotic. It feels algorithmic. Like you said, there aren’t just a finite set of problems that we can identify, quantify, and conquer that’ll bring us to this utopic land where Dev and the Bureau can retire to the back 9 and a life of beer by the beach. This perfect world impossibility is a reality we need to actively confront when embarking on any sort of ethical discussion. In the past, this kind of realization has left me in a gridlock of moral paralysis. If I am to optimize my karma, and even in the best case scenario, the whole world optimizes together, this utopic sustainable land will remain a fabricated dreamscape. So I’d ask myself the ever circular, almost annoying nihilistic adolescent question, what’s the point? Why even bother? How do I navigate this seemingly impossible ethical world, somehow balancing my selfish interests, without condemning myself to complete self sacrifice, all managed with no easy black and white moral compass to direct my behaviour? The short answer to that question is I don’t know. But, it’s more of a “I don’t think it’s possible to know for certain”, type of I-don’t-know. Before I spring off the diving board to a deeper conclusion to that question, I feel a bit obligated to say that I was definitely oversimplifying the moral duty to charity in my first post. It was a good exercise to try and understand the extreme side of the consequentialist perspective of charitable duty.

Now why I say it’s not possible to know for certain lies in a sad realization about our friends Dev and Slav. Whether you’re inspired by a form of empathetic guilt, or enriched by the euphoric bubbles of altruistic compassion, or are striving to be a “good guy”, there isn’t a real Karma bureau accounting for your efforts. There isn’t a Dev, the Accountant, or a Slav, the Auditor out there. Taking a deep dive into some cinematic cheese, there is, however, a Dev and Slav inside your heart. And that internal Dev and Slav should be consulted upon to figure out the calibration for the compass, to figure out what makes you feel good ultimately when it comes to charity.

But how do we actually end up acting on this internal reflection? The deontological perspective, as you brought up in your post, may help us find some answers here. What’s rooted in this perspective is an embracement of a series of human evolutionary tendencies when it comes to morality. There’s a natural admiration of the virtuous individual, with an empathetic ear,  with a strong sense of duty, with a conviction of yes and no answers to difficult questions. There’s a reassurance to the finality and clarity that it gives people. And apart from this role model “good person” ideal that’s easy and natural to strive to, the deontological perspective gives clear answers to people to make decisions and act on them. As for the world of the morally grey, they’re stuck in a gridlock of indecision with no exit in sight. Even if the truth is actually grey, how do you become operational and stay out of the purgatory of moral paralysis of analysis? My answer here is to embrace the arbitrariness of the moral grey by making a new rule. The “Time-Sensitive-Aribitrary-Deadline-Decision-Making” rule. TSADDM. The name is still a work in progress. But what this means is that I fix some arbitrary deadline, “one week from today”, spend time having the continued analysis that I’ve been having, then after the deadline arrives, make a decision, and follow through with it. Period.

 

Slav, the Karma Auditor

Ok, so what exactly is ‘logical, effective, and morally responsible’? It’s nice to conclude this, but is it just highfalutin equivocation to make us feel better without actually doing much?

Even if we accept that we don’t need to burden ourselves with ‘empathy’, how do we know when our compassion is enough to please Dev? How exactly do we reconcile all of the different ways to account for our karma? Does Dev use GAAP or IFRS? Do we need ‘charity advisors’ that spend years analyzing different strategies towards maximizing our ROK (Return on Karma)?

Bloom’s argument seems logical – compassion is like empathy infused with the B word. We stay clear of the emotional pits of despair, while trying our best to solve the root problems that ail the people we are trying to help. Yet, of course, even the B word needs its own B word (it’s B word recursion!). Bloom himself agrees that empathy is still very useful in relationships: the trope of the man who is always trying to solve problems instead of just ‘listening’ is the first thing that I thought of when I read about his new book. Further, while empathy may not, like Bloom argues, scale well, it is nevertheless an incredible motivator. I remember more about the girl in Schindler’s List and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan than any of my high school lessons on WW2.

Let me put on my deontological hat. What if a world filled with compassion leads to insidious side effects that a world with empathy does not? Perhaps we are a species that needs to empathize with stories on the level of the individual to truly be motivated to help? If everyone, in an act of true compassion, simply set a single recurring payment of $4000 a year to their favourite vetted charity – would that lead to a better world? Maybe in the short term, but is this really what we imagine when we think of ‘charity’ (the love of humanity)? Is the world really just filled with a finite set of problems to be solved, which upon being solved, will lead to some sort of utopia? I say no. We will always have problems, and we need empathy to constantly motivate us to help others solve their problems. Being compassionate may make us ‘feel better’ about just the act of helping, but being empathetic makes the human condition worthwhile.

A few weeks before he died in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless underlined a line from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “an unshared happiness is not happiness.” I think the same applies to despair in the human race. We are comforted by knowing that other people understand our own condition. Take medicine: Bloom mentions that what we want from doctors is compassion, not empathy. But is it really? Or do patients ‘crave empathy’ and the compassion is actually perceived in a negative light?

Perhaps we humans need to imagine living the life of a Harambe or a Tilikum in order to actually do anything about animal captivity. Perhaps it’s exactly why there are laws against publishing images from factory farms (whereas there are no laws against publishing the statistics). The human species is built on empathy, and maybe, despite its faults, we need to work with it instead of trying to simply remove it from the equation.

So, after Dev is done with the Karma paperwork, make sure he consults Slav, the karma auditor and freelance karma collection consultant. I hear he knows exactly the right balance of compassion and empathy that gives you the best 5 year ROK.

Dev, Karma Accountant

Meet Dev. Dev is an accountant. He doesn’t work at KPMG, or for the Canada Revenue Agency. Dev doesn’t work at a traditional accounting firm at all. He is a karma accountant. He keeps track of all conscious moral agent’s behaviours and their moral tallies. You use the right shoulder lane to pass other people -1, you give a homeless guy the change in your pocket +17, you adopt a kitten +38, you spend $3337 of your disposable income on a TV and don’t spend it on saving a child’s life in Africa -1000.

You get your Karma report at the end of the month, and see this giant negative integer staring at your emotional gut. You don’t feel like a bad person, but yet your purchasing history tells you otherwise. You submit a formal Karma Claim to Dev. Dev responds:

“A moral act now is different than it was when you were developing as a moral agent. Perhaps 100 000 years ago, caring for your local human community with compassion and kindness was enough, but with the current accessibility of a global currency, and honest charitable organizations, we, here at the Karma Bureau, expect more of you.”

Morality doesn’t scale well. Our evolutionary history, as Dev described, programmed us in a limited capacity to naturally extend our care to small numbers of people, often in your local social group. Guided by our empathetic compass, we often reach out when we can try and put ourselves in the person’s position. It’s easier to help someone you see suffering, feel their pain viscerally, and then relish the high when you assist in alleviating that pain. Who starts cancer charities? A loved one that lost someone to cancer, or a survivor of the disease.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, argues against the use of empathy in our approach to charity. Apart from it’s inherent biases of empathizing with people that you share similar characteristics with, Bloom argues that an empathetic guide to kindness can be debilitating. Feeling another’s pain, really living through the emotional exhaustion of the experience of their world, is exactly what it sounds like, painful. And after a certain point, it becomes difficult to keep up with the kindness. Selfish mental health control mechanisms, which are often unconscious, overtake and end up halting the empathy kindness train. What Professor Bloom suggests otherwise is compassion based kindness. A kindness that extends by feeling positive about the act of helping, without the need to emotionally empathize. And this approach, produces better long term results, while not discriminating who to help, regardless of relatability or physical distance to oneself.

As you alluded to, the consequentialist perspective, may be the correct ideal to work towards.  With results at the focus, and using the active tool of compassion based altruism, optimizing your monthly karma report is not only possible, but has selfish positive feelings at its core. And while charity isn’t natural, and helping a child drowning in a one foot pond of water 1000 miles away isn’t either, as Dev described, the human being as a moral agent needs to graduate and move past what’s natural, and move into what’s logical, effective, and morally responsible.

 

Charity: The Slave Morality?

Here’s a thought experiment: a man is shopping on Black Friday and stumbles across an unbelievable deal on a 4K TV: $3337 off the sticker price! Unfortunately, there are only 10 units remaining, and the man sees a few people in line with more streaming in. Nearby the TV sale, the man also sees a small child playing close to a water fountain. Suddenly, the child loses balances, knocks their head on the concrete wall of the fountain, and falls into the water. No one seems to notice this fall except the man. From a moral perspective, is it ok for the man to ignore the child (knowing full well that he or she may die) in exchange for securing his spot for the TV?

It seems that for most people, in this scenario, the decision to save $3337 over the life of a human being is not a very difficult one. Of course the man should save the child.

Yet, we live in world where donating $3337 can save a life (GiveWell.org estimates that a donation of $3337.06 to the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ will save a life in Africa.) So why don’t we feel morally obligated to donate as much as we can of our income for the benefit of other human beings?

This is the crux of the argument put forward by the effective altruism movement lead by Peter Singer, William MacAskill (both philosophy professors) and others. On Sam Harris’ podcast a few weeks ago, MacAskill talked about how he is now donating close to 40% of his income to charities and has been donating significant amounts ever since he was a PhD student (which gives me no excuse).

On the surface, I think I agree with this general movement, but have yet to put my money where my thoughts are. What’s your experience with charity, Rachit? Before you answer, let me note a few more thoughts that are applicable to charity in general (and not just effective altruism).

First, the modern concept of ‘charity’ feels bogged down by its ties to the distribution of abstract money (which then carries with it all the connotations of an Italian mob boss casually slipping an envelope into your suit pocket). The word itself seems to be originally free from such connections, originating in its modern form from the King James’ bible (as one of the Christian triplets ‘faith, hope and charity’) as the English translation of the French translation of the Latin translation of the Greek ‘agape’ (an unconditional love for others). The more high-brow term ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘the love of humanity.’ Unfortunately it seems that we are ruled by the economic systems we create, and our language has now morphed these two words to be much more closely linked to monetary distribution, rather than their original abstract meaning. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing tendency to associate ‘philanthropic acts’ with a certain class of people, and rarely think about ways in which everyone can express their love.

Second: motivations. Does it matter whether you are driven to donate money out of a selfish need to parade your virtuosity to others or out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others? A consequentialist would probably say no. A deontologist would probably say yes, definitely. I would probably say, ‘it depends on the type of philanthropy.’ Does a child in Burkina Faso care whether their anti-malaria bed net was paid for by someone who then immediately shared their donation on Facebook? I don’t think so. But perhaps the motivations of a volunteer at a soup kitchen or an employee of a non-profit do matter.

Finally, charity as meaning. Christian theology has charity as one of its core tenets (as evidenced by the very etymology of the word). This may sound obvious from our current Western ideology, but is it? Although I haven’t read much of his work, Nietzsche called this approach a fundamentally weak ‘slave morality.’ By-and-large, nature does not have charity. Nature favours the most fit to survive, and uses instances of animals as mere cogs in the grand goal of creating a stronger species. Perhaps we are still struggling to reconcile older Christian theology, with many of the Nietzsche-an components of the 21st century world. It’s up to us to define what it means to be ‘charitable’, and whether we should all strive to be philanthropists.